The female elders tell us what to look out for. Staring straight ahead, they usher us past the Starlite Lounge, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, and whisk us across the street as soon as they see “one of them faggots” emerge from the neon-lit bar. This one—he’s brown-skinned, like nearly every one else in that neighborhood, and skinny—has a female friend in tow, for appearances must be kept up. And as the couple run off in search of another pack of cigarettes, the bar’s door closes slowly behind them, but not before we children hear, above the martini-fed laughter, a single voice, high and plaintive: Michael Jackson’s.
It’s 1972, and “Ben,” the fourteen-year-old star’s first solo hit, is everywhere. The title song for a film about a bullied boy and his love for a rat named Ben (together they train a legion of other rodents to kill the boy’s tormentors; eventually Ben helps kill his human companion), the mournful ballad quickly became Jackson’s early signature song—certainly among the queens at the Starlite, who ignore its Gothic context, and play it over and over again as a kind of anthem of queer longing. For it was evident by then that Michael Jackson was no mere child with a gift. Or, to put it more accurately, he was all child—an Ariel of the ghetto—whose appeal, certainly to the habitués of places like the Starlite, lay partly in his ability to find metaphors to speak about his difference, and theirs.
The Jackson Five were America’s first internationally recognized black adolescent boy band. They were as smooth as the Ink Spots, but there was a hint of wildness and pathos in Michael Jackson’s rough-boy soprano, which, with its Jackie Wilson– and James Brown–influenced yelps, managed to remain just this side of threatening. He never changed that potent formula, not even after he went solo, more or less permanently, in 1978 at the age of twenty. Early on, he recognized the power mainstream stardom held—a chance to defend himself and his mother from the violent ministrations of his father, Joe Jackson (who famously has justified his tough parenting, his whippings, as a catalyst for his children’s success), and to wrest from the world what most performers seek: a nonfractured mirroring.
After “Ben,” the metaphors Michael Jackson used to express his difference from his family became ever more elaborate and haunting: there was his brilliant turn as an especially insecure, effete, and, at times, masochistic scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s 1978 film version of the Broadway hit The Wiz. There was his appropriation of Garland’s later style—the sparkly black Judy-in-concert jacket—during the 1984 “Victory” tour, his last performances with his brothers, whose costuming made them look like intergalactic superheroes. And there were the songs he wrote for women—early idols like Diana Ross or his older sister, Rebbie—songs that expressed what he could never say about his own desire. “She said she wants a guy/To keep her satisfied/But that’s alright for her/But it ain’t enough for me,” Jackson wrote in the 1982 Diana Ross hit song “Muscles.” The song continues: “Still, I don’t care if he’s young or old/(Just make him beautiful)…. I want muscles/All over his body.” The following year, Jackson wrote “Centipede,” which became Rebbie Jackson’s signature song. It begins: “Your love/Is like a ragin’ fire, oh/You’re a snake that’s on the loose/The strike is your desire.” In bars like the Starlite, and, later, in primarily black and Latin gay dance clubs like the Paradise Garage on Manhattan’s Lower West Side, the meaning was clear: Michael Jackson was most himself when he was someone other than himself.
Ross was more than an early idol; she served as a kind of beard during a pivotal period of Jackson’s self-creation. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, as he moved away from being a Jackson but was not willing to forgo his adorable child star status, Jackson “dated” a number of white starlets—Tatum O’Neal, Brooke Shields—but once those girls were exhibited at public events two or three times, they were never seen with him again. Ross, on the other hand, was a constant. Gay fans labeled her as the ultimate fag hag, or sister, who used her energetic feline charm to help sexualize Jackson. But intentionally or not, the old friends perverted this notion in the 1981 television special Diana. In it, the two singers wear matching costumes: slacks, shirt, and tie. The clip was shown over and over again in the clubs: Jackson dances next to Ross, adding polish to her appealingly jerky moves; he does Ross better than Ross.
The anxiety of influence is most palpable on the spoken-word introduction to his 1979 album Off the Wall, the first of his four collaborations with the producer Quincy Jones. Here, Jackson can be heard struggling against his own imitation of Ross’s breathy voice (a voice canonized in Diana, her brilliant Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers– produced 1980 album featuring the militaristic hit “I’m Coming Out,” which has subsequently become a gay anthem of sorts). It was during this period that a number of black gay men began to refer to Jackson as “she” and, eventually, “a white woman”—one of the slurs they feared most, for what could be worse than being called that which you were not, could never be? As his physical transformations began to overshadow his life as a musician, Jackson’s now-famous mask of white skin and red lips (a mask that distanced him from blackness just as his sexuality distanced him from blacks) would come to be read as the most arresting change in the man who said no to life but yes to pop.
The chokehold of black conservatism on black gay men has been chronicled by a handful of artists—Harlem Renaissance poet Bruce Nugent, playwright and filmmaker Bill Gunn, James Baldwin, and AIDS activist and spoken word artist Marlon Riggs among them—but these figures are rare, and known mostly to white audiences. In black urban centers across the US, where Jesus is still God, men who cannot conform to the culture’s edicts—adopting a recognizably heterosexual lifestyle, along with a specious contempt for the spoils of white folk—are ostracized, or worse; being “out” is a privilege many black gay men still cannot afford. Bias-related crimes aside (black gay men are more likely to be bashed by members of their own race than by nonblacks), there’s the bizarre fact that queerness reads, even to some black gay men themselves, as a kind of whiteness. In a black, Christian-informed culture, where relatively few men head households anymore, whiteness is equated with perversity, a pollutant further eroding the already decimated black family. So, in their wretchedness, and their guilt, the black gay men who cannot marry women, and those who should not but do, meet on the “down low” for closeted gay sex and, less often, love and fraternity.
During Jackson’s childhood in Gary, Indiana, black conservatism would have reigned. Among US cities with a population of 100,000 or more, Gary—a steel town twenty-five miles southeast of downtown Chicago—has the highest percentage of black residents, mostly Southern transplants, mostly Christian, and steadfastly heterosexual. Both of Jackson’s parents’ roots were in the South. His mother, Katherine, was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. She suffered Joe’s various infidelities and cruelties to their nine children with the forbearance of one whose reward will come not in this world, but the next. (Joe Jackson has never adopted his wife’s faith.) In her 2006 study, On Michael Jackson,* the critic Margo Jefferson discusses this split in parenting, the fractured mirroring in the home:
Katherine Jackson’s pursuit of her faith was analogous to what she had been doing all along: housekeeping. Dirt and disorder were the enduring enemy in the household. Germ-free spiritual cleanliness was the goal in her religion. The Witnesses say you are not pure in heart unless you are pure in body. You must follow scriptural condemnation of fornicators, idolators, masturbators, adulterers and homosexuals…. So while Katherine works to lead their souls to God, Joseph works to bend their minds, bodies and voices to his will for success. Not that Katherine objects: she has her own suppressed ambitions. The boys become singing and dancing machines. And little Michael becomes a diligent Witness.
For her children ever to have raised the issue of Katherine Jackson’s complicity with her husband’s drive for his sons’ stardom (and thus his own), and with his various cruelties—Jefferson writes, “He put on ghoulish masks and scared his children awake, tapping on their bedroom window, pretending to break in and standing over their beds, waiting for them to wake up screaming”—would have meant the total loss of family: she was the only emotional sustenance they knew. And who would object to the riches Joe Jackson’s management eventually yielded, despite his hard-line style? Three years after his fifth son, Michael, began to sing lead in the family band in 1966, they were signed to Motown Records, where they would remain for more than a decade. And despite their uneven career paths, none of the Jackson children would ever lack for financial security again.
In his 1985 essay “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Baldwin wrote of Michael Jackson:
The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael.
Baldwin goes on to claim that “freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.” But Jackson was not quite that articulate or vocal about his difference, if he even saw it as such after a while. Certainly his early interest in subtext —expressed primarily by wordplay and choice of metaphor—receded after he released his synthesizer-heavy 1991 album, Dangerous. That album gave us “In the Closet,” where an uncredited Princess Stéphanie of Monaco pleads, at the beginning of the song, for the singer not to ignore their love, “woman to man.” (It’s another link in the chain of influence; she sounds like Jackson doing Diana Ross.) In a later part of the song, Michael pleads: “Just promise me/Whatever we say/Or whatever we do/To each other/For now we’ll make a vow/To just keep it in the closet.”
But this would be his last engagement of this kind. Unlike Prince, his only rival in the black pop sweepstakes, Jackson couldn’t keep mining himself for material for fear of what it would require of him—a turning inward, which, though arguably not the job of a pop musician, is the job of the artist. After Dangerous, Jackson became a corporation, concerned less with creative innovation than with looking backward to recreate the success he had achieved more than ten years before, with Thriller. In contrast, over a career spanning roughly the time of Jackson’s own, Prince has released more than thirty albums, not all of them great, but each reflective of the current permutation of his musical mind, with its focus on sex and religion as twin transformative experiences. When not content to sing as himself, Prince has created an alter ego, Camille, to explore his feminine side, and thus help promote his stock in trade: androgyny (which is Prince’s freakishness, along with his interest in bending racial boundaries without resculpting his face). For Jackson to have admitted to his own freakishness might have meant, ultimately, being less canny about his image and more knowledgeable about his self—his body, which was not as impervious as his reputation.
James Baldwin did not live long enough to see Jackson self-destruct. And the most interesting aspect of his essay in light of Jackson’s death is Baldwin’s identification with Michael Jackson, another black boy who saw fame as power, and both did and did not get out of the ghetto he had been born into, or away from the father who became his greatest subject. But the differences are telling. While Baldwin died in exile, he did not presumably die in exile from his body, and while Baldwin died an artist, Jackson did not. After 1991, Jackson’s focus was his career—which is work, too, but not the work he could have done. And his tremendous gifts as a singer and arranger, and as a synthesizer of world music in a pop context, became calcified. He forgot how to speak, even behind the jeweled mask of metaphor.
In the end, the chief elements of his early childhood—his father, his blackness, the church, his mother’s silence—won, and the prize was his self-martyrdom: the ninety-pound frame; the facial operations; the dermatologist as the replacement family; the disastrous finances; the young boys loved, and then paid off. Michael Jackson died a long time ago, and it’s taken years for anyone to notice.